Tribes around the world practise interesting, controversial and downright grim customs. As globalisation has enabled the media (and social media) to send research viral at the click of a button, our society is ever-evolving and changing, but for tribes living outside of our media circus, many live by a set of traditions have been passed down for centuries.
Some tribes practise similar – or exactly the same – customs, but many have traditions which are unique to them and their ancestors.
Anyway, here are some grim tribal traditions and customs.
8 grim customs
A boy who was supposed to be eaten by the tribe he grew up in when he was just six years old returned to the jungle nearly 15 years later.
When Wawa’s parents died suddenly in 2006, he was thought to be a “bad spirit” and the tribe began planning his death, as you do.
I mean, ignoring the whole ‘murdering a grieving child’ thing, I personally wouldn’t want to consume a bad spirit, but that’s just me.
His uncle was also killed after having an affair with another man’s wife and Wawa returned with the hope of educating his tribe on dealing with situations in a non-life-threatening way.
The Aghori tribe in India is infamous for eating the dead. It stems from the belief that the greatest fear humans have is the fear of death and that this fear is a barrier to spiritual enlightenment. By confronting their fear, one can achieve enlightenment. I personally don’t see the logic with going so far as to eat corpses, but ok.
According to Hinduism, holy men, children, pregnant or unmarried women, and people who have died of leprosy or snake bites cannot be cremated, but everyone else should be. These people are set afloat down the Ganges, where the Aghoris pull them from the water and ritually consume them.
- Eating a turtle penis increases the sex drive??!
Some tribes believe that if a man eats a raw turtle heart (while it’s still pumping…), it gives him strength and a woman is expected to eat the turtle’s penis if she needs to enhance her sex drive.
- Wife stealing
In the Wodaabe tribe of Niger in West Africa, parents of their young infants arrange marriages between cousins of the same lineage.
Despite this, at the yearly Gerewol Festival, Wodaabe men dress in elaborate makeup and costumes before dancing to impress the women, with the hopes of stealing a new wife. Even if the current husband is happy in his marriage, if a new couple is able to sneak away undetected, they become socially recognised. Their new marriage is called a ‘love marriage’.
- Exchanging wives to confuse evil spirits
Some tribes living in Arctic regions of North America and East Siberia believe that bad luck and bad omens might affect them during a catastrophe. By exchanging wives, they can change the individual’s identity and confuse evil spirits, warding off bad luck.
Siberian Inuit tribes also believe that they could be contaminated by coming into contact with a menstruating woman, bringing bad luck which could cause a man to drown at sea.
Although it’s taboo in many cultures across the world, institutional homosexuality is also very common. Some fathers indulge in intercourse with their underage son’s wife with the understanding that he will raise any potential offspring if she falls pregnant to him.
- Living with the dead
So, as you probably know, Mexicans exhume (dig up…) their loved ones for the annual Dia de la Muerte (Day of the Dead). Well the Toraja people of Indonesia also practice the ritual of exhuming the corpses of villagers, including children and bodies which are decades old.
They clean the corpses, their garments and coffins and drape special garments over the corpse and ceremonially return them to their home village, like a parade except with a dead body. If someone died outside the village, the corpse is taken to the spot of death so it can be walked back to the village, as an act of returning home.
- Ainu bear worship
The Ainu people, indigenous to parts of Japan and Russia, ritually sacrifice hibernating bears, as part of a religious nature ceremony. It’s believed that bears are gods walking among humans, but that sacrificing the creatures will bless the soul of mankind.
They usually slaughter a hibernating mother bear in her cave and raise her cubs in captivity for two years, before choking or spearing them as a sign of religious devotion. The villagers drink the bears’ blood, eat the flesh and place the skull atop a spear wrapped with the bear skin, which is then worshipped.
The practice isn’t as common as it once was, but it does still happen in some areas.
- Visiting the spirit world
More than 70 indigenous tribes over a large area, from Colombia to Bolivia, boil down the vines of a sacred tree (which can take days to reach via a river) to create a brew which sends the drinker to the spirit world and sometimes use it help them find the answers to questions in the deepest part of their soul. The hallucinogenic brew is named ‘Ayahuasca’, which translates to the ‘vine of death’ or ‘vine of souls’.
The entire experience can last as long as 8 hours, with the strongest ‘effects’ lasting between 1 – 3 hours. And yes, it can put people in comas and even kill.
- A month of tears
Women living in the Tujia tribe in China are expected to partake in a weird ritual in the month leading up to their wedding: they’re expected to cry every day in front of other members of the tribe.
By crying out all of their bad memories, they cleanse themselves to set strong foundations for their marriage. But the headaches they must have to live with! It isn’t just a little sob, it’s a full-on cry. Can’t say I envy them.
Body modification & pain (so much pain)
- Lip discs
So the world is pretty used to body modification, from having ‘vampire teeth’ implanted to the triple boob, but this takes it to a whole new level. The ear stretcher you had during your teen years feels kind of tame now, huh? Also known as lip plugs or lip plates, this body mod is actually quite common across the world. The procedure involves piercing a hole, typically in the lower lip, and fitting a small plate inside it. Like someone stretching their ear, the lip becomes stretched out and the plate gets replaced with a larger one.
Anyway, here’s a picture. You ready for this??
The initial disc can be no bigger than half an inch in diameter, but they usually get as big as 4 inches. The world record holder is Ataye Eligidagne with a 7.7 inch lip stretcher, as seen below…
The custom used to be common among many tribes throughout Africa and America but nowadays only a few tribes still practice the tradition regularly – primarily the Mursi and Surma people of Ethiopia.
Tattoos are an everyday sight in modern society, but many tribes take them to the extreme. They don’t use ink and instead burn the skin or cut or scratch it so it scars as it heals.
Taking it to a whole other level is tribes like the Kaningara tribe in Papua New Guinea. Crocodile scarification involves cutting their chests, backs and butts to create patterns reminiscent of crocodile skin. The process that can take several weeks, not including the healing time.
Believe it or not, in some tribes this is an initiation rite (like a bar mitzvah but with a knife) to signal the passage into adulthood and strengthen the spiritual connection between them and their environment. It’s usually performed on young boys to physically toughen them up, but sometimes women are scarred as well. The tribes reportedly insult those being scarred at the same time, to mentally toughen them up. Wouldn’t see that at a bar mitzvah, would you?
Some ceremonies are carried out in Haus Tambaran, or ‘The Spirit House’. Before being scarred, young teens live in seclusion in Haus Tambaran for two months in preparation for the ritual.
Their bodies are cut with sharp bamboo pieces and the marks symbolise tooth marks left by the spirit of a crocodile because of the notion that crocodiles are the creators of humans. The croc ‘eats’ the young boy’s body and expels him as a grown man.
- Bullet ant glove
Ok, why do all these tribes practise painful traditions?? Who was the first person to decide it was a good idea to fill gloves with stinging ants? The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil collect venomous stinging bullet ants and create gloves with them woven into the interior. Initiates are instructed to slip their hands inside for ten minutes to complete the ritual.
I know what you might be thinking… ‘Ah they’re only ants, it’s only a few bites!’ But NO. They literally have ‘bullet’ in their name. The sting is classed with the maximum rating on the Schmidt sting pain index and is comparable to the pain of being shot.
The venom paralyses the young boys’ arms and it takes days for the pain to stop.
If you assume the initiates just wear the gloves once and that’s it, you’re wrong. They won’t be considered “real men” unless they repeat the ritual 20 times over the course of months or even years.
- Finger amputations + grief = WTF?
In the Dani tribe of Indonesia, after a family member dies a woman loses a finger. Well, I say ‘loses’, but she actually just chops part of it off. Apparently the emotional pain isn’t enough – they’re expected to express their grief by cutting off a segment of one of their fingers.
The finger is tied with a string for thirty minutes to numb it, so it can be amputated and the new fingertips can be burned, to create scar tissue and stem the bleeding.
- Neck coils
You’ve probably heard of this one before, right? But they never feel ‘real’ to look at. They’re commonly worn by Kayan women in Burma and there’s a myth that the coils begin to support the weight of the head, so if they were to remove them, their necks would snap.
Like lip stretchers, they’re often begun from childhood. In fact, between 5 and 10 might be given to children. After many years, wearers can fit over 20 coils around their necks.
The coils press down on the shoulders, lowering the clavicle, but this gives the impression that the neck becomes longer (although it actually doesn’t). Padaung women are very rarely seen without their coils, possibly because of the ‘snapping neck’ myth.
- Self flagellation
Ashura has become recognised in recent years thanks to photos and videos shared on social media. The grim Muslim event involves some Shiite religious followers repeatedly attacking themselves in the street.
It is observed in commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, at the 7th century battle of Karbala. Hussein and his comrades were repeatedly struck on the head with daggers.
Instead of just imagining their pain, some men join a procession so they can experience the pain. They flagellate themselves with daggers to pay tribute and absolve sin. As it’s an annual event, some participants reopen their wounds every damn year.
- Fire walking
The concept of fire walking isn’t uncommon, but the practise itself is. Well, it is in modern society, anyway. It’s actually a purification ritual which involves walking barefoot on burning embers. Why purification?! Well, fire is believed to overcome impurity while repelling evil influences.
Completing the challenges also signifies a man’s strength and his resolve to free himself from evil. It’s like a rite of passage, so hundreds of devotees walk over the fire during the festival, some carrying deities.
There’s a similar custom in Tamil Nadu, in India, called the Thimithi, and it’s practised in various other parts of the world.
- FGM & infibulation
FGM, or female genital mutilation, is something commonly recognised and outlawed in many countries worldwide. It involves deliberate, non-medical removal or cutting of female genitalia and is common in Eastern Africa and Peru. While people are legally forbidden from carrying out the procedure, tribes aren’t governed by laws, so it’s likely that it still exists to this day.
Different regions and communities practice this in various ways, but cutting the skin is most common.
In a number of tribes in Eastern Africa and Peruvian Indians, a woman’s labia is sewn and clasped together as a child to prevent sex before marriage and a small opening is left so they can pee. Known as infibulation, it’s extremely painful, damages sexually-sensitive skin and puts the girl at risk of life-long infections. And what if it tears while stretching??! Or if they’re abused? Shit. Assuming nothing goes wrong with the stitches, the woman has to have it cut open after getting married.